Log #61E Old Masset

August 5, 2016 in Logs by Series, Series 61, The Logs

Hi Folks,

We feel we are back home in civilization again here in False Creek in the middle of the thriving but expensive city of Vancouver. We will be here for another week or so before heading over to Victoria and Esquimalt after which we sail (hopefully) over to Port Angeles to formally enter the U.S. before voyaging down the coast to Mexico, via Newport, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and a few points in between.

I hope to get caught up on my logs before we start the passage south, so two or three of them will come in hopefully short order. Incidentally my website www.veledaiv.ca may be off line for a short period of time as I get some domain changes sorted out.

This log gets us from Old Masset, and some of the totem poles newly erected there, with a bit of history of the devastated native villages some of which we will be seeing in my next log as we sail through Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and hear the stories of the watchmen guarding the sites

Log #61d Haida Heritage Centre                                        Haida Gwaii 5

All the best,



Log #61e Old Masset to the Haida Heritage Centre
Vancouver, B.C.
Aug. 1, 2016

Ravaged by Disease

In our rented car we left our furthest point of Tow Hill to return  past the Navy’s large circular netted radio listening station into Masset and up to Old Masset. Old Masset is one of the native communities which consolidated the area villages abandoned as a result of the diseases which killed 95% of their populations in the late 1800s. The other community into which the surviving natives were relocated is Skidigate.

There was little European contact on Haida Gwaii until the early to mid 1800s when timber, fishing and mining opened up. Between 1860 to 1890, the native populations were devastated  by smallpox, measles, and other diseases to which they had no immunity. Imagine an Haida village of 500 to 800 souls over a period of 20 to 30 years ravaged to the extent only 10 or 20 individuals were left alive. Should they try to keep the village together to commemorate their heritage? Should they abandon it (and their heritage) to start a new life elsewhere? Where? There were 20 or 30 such villages all in similar distress. The horrors of so many dying in these close knit villages is unimaginable. Not only the deaths, but the inability to carry out traditional death ceremonies, with mortuary houses and suitable memorial poles, must have created a tragic period of chaos.

Some gravitated to the population centres of Queen Charlotte City, Skidigate, Sandspit, Masset and Old Masset. In 1890, some of the surviving native groups around these centres sent delegations to the dying communities to urge and help to relocate the survivors to these centres.

Old Masset was a magnet as it was still a very traditional Haida community, assisted by the services of the Canadian community of New Masset a few miles south. In Old Masset there is a memorial pole outside the Chief Mathews primary school built in 1993 honouring the 450 repatriated ancestors the community brought home. The present population of Old Masset is only 700. That means that over 50% of the population there had members whose ancestors were relocated from devastated village. The population is made from over 20 villages of the Haida Eagle and Raven clans.


Haida Symbols of the Eagle and Raven

Totem poles were not worshiped as such, but are commemorative poles for important chieftains, potlatches, homes, mortuaries and battles. There were no new totem poles constructed on Haida Gwaii after 1869 due to the ravages of disease and the dying of the populations. After 100 years  the first new pole was raised in 1969 outside the Anglican church in Old Masset.

St. John’s Church Pole above is topped with the faces and hats of three watchmen, looking left and right and out to sea, looking out for canoes of friends or foes. The stripes on their hats indicate the number of potlatches they have experienced.

The native carvers were supported as essential to maintaining the Haida culture, as were teachers and others keeping the language, history, culture and traditions alive.
Bench and wood carving outside a water treatment facility in Old Masset   

Today there are 20 poles in Old Masset and Masset to honour deceased loved ones and ancestors, and to celebrate new homes or infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and community centres.
This is the Geoffrey White Memorial pole outside a private residence. The raven on top indicates the clan of the individual.

The town has several new buildings housing community centres, a hospital, fire department and schools, but many of the houses are shabby, in poor repair. As we drove around it was difficult to assess whether some of the houses were abandoned or just run down. There were some nice houses, but landscaping does not seem to be a high value in the community.
  This is the Medicine pole outside the hospital/clinic

Masset was a bit better in its overall appearance. It has some wide paved streets, some grocery and hardware stores as well as more modern government buildings such as employment centres, post office, social assistance offices, RCMP detachment, and fire department, as well as a few pubs and restaurants B&Bs and resort lodges.

One area of town that has a number of better housing units was the former housing area for the Canadian navy detachment that built and ran the radio station in the late 1900’s, a legacy of the “cold war”. The base provided a range of homes, a school, and services that helped Masset after the base was closed down (or mothballed, as the large circular radio net is still there, cared for by a couple of maintenance personnel). When we visited the Dixon Entrance Marine Museum in Masset, I was interested in the history of the radio station. The pleasant ladies showed me some binders of that period of history, and lo and behold there was a picture of three of our old gate vessels alongside in 1985. I was not on one of them at that time, but I have been to Masset on gate vessels twice, once in 1981 and in 1988. You know you are getting old when you see parts of your life reflected in a museum!

Next day, Monday, we dinghied the five miles up to the ferry dock at Skidigate, and walked the couple of miles over to the Haida Heritage Centre where we were to take the orientation course for the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.
The course was to prepare us for entry into this historical reserve of abandoned Haida villages, hot springs and temperate rain forest areas on the lower Moresby Island archipelago, similar to an orientation course we had to take before being allowed into Glacier Bay in Alaska last year. The purpose of the course, and the restricted numbers allowed into the area at any one time, is to reduce the impact of tourists on the fragile environment and historical remains, and for the safety of the boaters navigating these narrow and sometimes treacherous waters.

More about the Haida Heritage Centre and the trip through Gwaii Haanas in my next log.
Log #61d Haida Heritage Centre[5]
Haida Heritage Centre
Haida Gwaii and Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve